El Club Benson

On an outdoor court by a Church meetinghouse, a basketball curves high in the air against the morning sky—really high—more than 3,800 meters high. A moment later, a volleyball rises to almost the same height before a hand knocks it down to the ground.

Is this a game being played by giants, or Superman? No, but this court is in Puno, Peru, a short distance from the shore of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. The shortest player in Puno stands almost four kilometers higher than the tallest player at sea level.

Lake Titicaca lies between Peru and Bolivia on a broad plateau surrounded by Andean mountain peaks. Puno rises from a bay on the northwestern shore of the lake. The air is clean, and the clear blue waters of the lake glisten in the sun. It’s a beautiful place to live, and it’s home to a thriving district of the Church.

The young women practicing volleyball and the young men practicing basketball are Latter-day Saint youth from the Puno District, along with a few of their nonmember friends. They got together more than a year ago to form El Club Benson, named in honor of President Ezra Taft Benson, a man they have never met but whom they love and respect—a man who used to be quite a good athlete himself. There are no Church teams to compete with, so each Saturday they play other club teams from around the city.

If you ask them, as some have, what basketball and volleyball have to do with religion they can tell you.

Maria Luz De La Torre, age 17, says, “As members of the Church, we’re trying to progress in every part of our lives. We’re trying to develop our talents. The gospel applies to sports the same as to other activities.”

Alfredo Valles, age 15, says, “Sports are a healthy alternative to some of the things going on in the world today that could ruin our lives.”

The air at this altitude is thin, so thin that people from lower elevations often become ill here, but these athletes aren’t even breathing hard as they fight for rebounds and dive for digs. They live the Word of Wisdom and get plenty of exercise through El Club Benson. Placido Melo, age 22, says, “I believe we should stay fit both physically and spiritually. The Savior said that my body is a temple of God, and so I try to keep it healthy through exercise.”

Basketball coach Pedro Nunez says, “Through basketball we fellowship one another, and this fellowship strengthens our ability to resist evil and overcome our vices. We also increase our commitment to the Word of Wisdom.”

One result of this fellowshipping has been increased unity among the youth. Alejandro Lazo, age 19, says, “Every time we get together as a team we are one. We play as one. We fellowship one another and get to know each other better.”

Consuela Corquehuanca, adds, “We’ve grown closer through playing together. When we play with unity, we play with more power. We’ve learned that if someone plays only for herself, the whole team suffers.”

And then there’s missionary work. Ernesto Tamayo, coach of the volleyball team, says, “One of our major objectives is to preach the gospel. There are several nonmember sisters in this group. We hope that someday they’ll be baptized into the Church.”

Melinda Mendoza, 14, says, “We invite friends to our games, and we begin each game with prayer. So we’re teaching our friends about prayer. I believe some of them will join the Church some day.”

In Puno three cultures meet. The Spanish, Quechua, and Aymara languages can all be heard on the streets. Quechua is the ancient language of the Incas, and the Aymaras have always lived around Lake Titicaca.

The Latter-day Saints in Puno constitute a small minority, and El Club Benson helps bridge the cultures. Simon Bernardo Clemente says, “We’re making a real effort to develop good relationships with the teams we play. It isn’t always easy. When we win, our opponents often don’t even want to look at us. And, to be honest, when we lose, it’s sometimes hard for us to congratulate the other team and thank them for the game, but we just make a greater effort to do the right thing.”

El Club Benson has had plenty of chances to congratulate opponents. So far both the men’s and women’s teams have lost more games than they’ve won. They plan to change that, of course, but in the meantime, they’re not complaining.

Maritza Mendoza, 15 years old, says, “We play to win, of course. I can’t imagine anybody playing to lose. But we keep the game in perspective and realize that somebody has to lose. A loss just means that we have to practice harder. The fun is in trying to get better each time we play.”

Richardo Quispe, age 16, agrees. “You can lose and still be a winner. You’re only a loser if you get angry about it.”

Nineteen-year-old Felipe Pareja says, “We can learn from both losing and winning. It’s just that so far we’ve mainly learned from losing.”

Selva Munoz, age 15, adds, “The point isn’t winning or losing. The point is to do our best and play with unity. That’s what we pray for before each game.”

On the shores of Lake Titicaca, Indians fashion beautiful handmade boats from the reeds growing in the shallow water. Offshore, the Uru tribe lives on floating islands made from mats of these reeds. There is a lesson here that the Latter-day Saint youth of Puno understand very well. By itself, each reed is only a little thing, but woven together with others it keeps people afloat.

El Club Benson is only one strand in the lives of the Church youth here, but it helps to keep them spiritually afloat and plays an important role in the righteous and happy lives they live.

[photos] Photography by Jed Clark

[photo] The Church athletes in Puno are gracious in both victory and defeat. Their sportsmanship helps build unity with their friends and neighbors of other faiths.

[photo] Puno lies on the shore of Lake Titicaca high in the mountains 3,800 meters above sea level. The air is so thin that visitors from lower elevations often become ill.